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As asbestos fibres accumulate in the lungs, several diseases may occur:

Two principal kinds of cancer:

  • Mesothelioma is a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal lining and is considered to be almost exclusively related to exposure to asbestos. It is almost always fatal with those affected usually dying within 1 or 2 years of diagnosis. Mesothelioma has a long latency period (i.e. the time between initial exposure and the onset of the disease) that is typically between 30 and 40 years.
  • Lung Cancer is a malignant tumour of the bronchi - the tubes carrying air to and from the lungs. The tumour grows through surrounding tissue, invading and often obstructing air passages. Again, the disease has a long latency period - typically at least 20 years.

Non-malignant lung diseases:

  • Asbestosis is a scarring of the lung tissue. This scarring impairs the elasticity of the lung, restricting their expansion and hampering their ability to exchange gases. This leads to inadequate oxygen intake to the blood. It is a slowly progressive disease with a latency period of 15 to 30 years.
  • Diffuse pleural thickening is a non-malignant disease in which the lining of the lung (pleura) becomes scarred. If it is extensive then it, too, can restrict expansion of the lungs and lead to breathlessness. It normally takes at least 10 years after the first exposure to develop asbestos related pleural disease. The disease is a chronic condition with no cure.
  • Small areas of scarring are called pleural plaques. They do not cause symptoms.

If disturbed, asbestos material may release asbestos fibres which can be inhaled into the lungs. Some kinds of asbestos fibres can remain there for a long time as they are not easily destroyed or degraded. Asbestos material that would crumble easily if handled, or that has been sawed, scraped, or sanded into a powder, is more likely to create a health hazard. Persons most likely to be currently exposed to asbestos are those working in building and maintenance trades, and to a lesser extent those involved in asbestos removal (where risks potentially exist unless rigorous precautions are taken.)

The asbestos minerals ability to resist high temperatures is what made it so useful. Asbestos is ideal for any process involving the conservation or preservation of heat. The fibre gives protection against fire, corrosion, cold, acids, alkalis, electricity, noise, energy loss, vibration, salt water, frost, dust and vermin. For a long time the dangers of asbestos use were not widely understood. Asbestos related disease generally takes many years - often several decades - to develop after exposure. Thus, the scale of the health risks were only becoming known after asbestos had already been widely used and many people had already been exposed.

Although asbestos is a hazardous material it can only pose a risk to health if the asbestos fibres become airborne and are then inhaled. Therefore, most asbestos materials pose little risk unless they are disturbed in some way that allows the fibres to be released into the air. Inhalation of asbestos fibres can lead to serious diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the linings of the lungs - the pleura, or lower digestive tract - the peritoneum) and asbestosis (a chronic fibrosis of the lungs). Many cases of these diseases occurring now are a result of exposure in industries that used asbestos extensively in the past. However, the fact that asbestos was also installed in many buildings means that a wider range of people still have the potential to be exposed - particularly building and maintenance workers. For this reason the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 brought together three previous sets of Regulations covering the prohibition of asbestos, the control of asbestos at work and asbestos licensing together with a ‘duty to manage asbestos’ for those responsible for non-domestic premises

Asbestos is the generic term for a wide range of naturally occurring minerals that crystallise to form long thin fibres and fibre bundles. Most common is the serpentine group, which includes chrysotile (white asbestos) and which has been the most frequently mined. A second asbestos group known as the amphiboles includes crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos). The fibres have high tensile strength, and chemical, electrical and heat resistance - properties that made asbestos extremely useful as a building/insulation material. Asbestos has been used extensively in Great Britain and throughout the world.

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